Architecture That Destroyed a City
New York’s skyline is considered the most beautiful and holy scene made possible by the will of man. Such the art that the sky turns tangible, the setting sun seems shy and the shapes without detail seem nothing less than religion itself. People admire the thoughts of men that made them, but do they truly understand the true face of a city’s skyline?
Skyscrapers came up as a symbol of power and the sublime glass that these megastructures adorned were a symbol of money and capitalization; that was in fact symbolic of development and transcendence in the late 19th and 20th century. But people fail to realize, once in front of these magnanimous structures, that as some people soar the skies, particular strata of the society remains hidden behind those cold deceiving glass facades. The economically weaker people are deprived of access to such luxurious spaces and face commercial exploitation.
The skyline is in fact a symbol of the despotic nature of the society and the despair in which a stratum of the human population survives.
There is a reason why there are so few skyscrapers in India. It’s not that India cannot build them; India is not ready for them. For long Delhi endured their intrusion but now it seems to be giving in to the changes that have happened with the 21st-century breakdown. Taking a glimpse down the trodden path…
November 1st, 1999, a new typology of architecture lay its feet in Delhi — the shopping mall. Ansal Plaza, in Andrews Ganj, was inaugurated to be the first-ever mall in Delhi. People traveling through the Khel Gaon Marg now met the sight of a tall tower from a distance, and as they neared a smooth curved reddish-brown facade created a mesmerizing view. The circular form with huge tempting banners had closed facades on the outside and clear glass facades on the inside. The circle enclaved an amphitheater and the inclusive form had come up to give visual access of the ongoings in the amphitheater to every person shopping inside the complex. Moreover, the mall boasted of the 1000 car parking facility. It was a landmark of its time and still earmarked as one of the best mall designs ever made. Everything in its design, from form to function was a success. It dazzled the city with its architecture, the brands and products it displayed, and the cultural events that took place. It revolutionized the shopping experience and market preferences too. The people of Delhi gave a warm welcome to this new culture.
The Delhi Development Authority noticed the profitability of the profound commercialization through mall culture and the ever-increasing land values around it. History is evidence, that money succeeded in corrupting the greatest minds and DDA was but a mere puppet. The planning commission now greedy with the exploits of rampant commercialization took under two heritage markets in South Delhi — the Khan Market and the Hauz Khas Village and decided to turn them into elite markets under the pretext of urbanization.
Hauz Khas Village as the name suggests did not fall under the Municipal Corporation of Delhi at that time but was an independent ‘Lal Dora’ village. The Hauz Khas preserved the centuries-old architectural and cultural history of Delhi. Established during the Delhi Sultanate it was based around a ‘Hauz’ ( a water reservoir) and was a ‘Khas’ (royal) market, thus the name. It had been thought of as an urban village and at the closure of the 20th century was the most celebrated arts and crafts area in Delhi.
The monumental madrasas, pavilions, and mosques surrounding the reservoir stood proud of the rich monumental Islamic architecture. The huge relaxing gardens assume the placement of built forms. The structures have near-perfect radial and bilateral symmetry, adorned with red sandstone and pointed hemispherical domes of artful brickwork. The walls of rubble stone and interiors of ceramic tile all but speak of the beauty and golden era of Delhi. The markets outside it, having been transformed through the ages showed a time-lapse from Delhi Sultanate to an amalgamation of Hindu-Mughal architecture, superimposed by Colonial styles and further facets of urbanization. The beautiful jharokhas and artfully carved out stone brackets, the reddish-brown exposed brickwork, timber facades and interior partitions, the arched lintels, red and yellow sandstone work, Islamic readings on stone walls, thick timber doors, narrow streets of cobblestone, and some plastered reliefs. To add, the humble cement flooring is a welcome to pre-fabricated material, all boast of an urbanscape with the richest cultural background and an intelligent growth pattern. Not just that, the narrow streets bustling with life. The extrovert nature of the market revealed the work of artisans, potters, and embroiders that filled the visual spectrum of visitors with colors; and the semi open restaurants and cafes flared their nostrils with delicious fragrances. The criss-cross mesh of streets added adventure to the experience. It was elite in its own way. Despite its far fetched popularity, it was a down to earth market that produced the best but could be afforded by all. It boasted of the aura of socialism that flowed in the streets. It was said that the market remained uncommercialized and its biggest symbol was that it had no ATM in its vicinity.
All changed soon and steadily. With its inclusion in the Delhi municipality in 2001, DDA took up the propaganda of redeveloping the area. It stripped the area of its beautiful streets, destroyed the reservoir, forced the craftsmen to retreat from the streets into their lots, banned certain types of cottage industries, and uprooted certain ventures with an excuse of preserving architectural heritage. The craftsmen lay in chains, unable to use their spaces according to their own needs, and stripped off of the market networks and their beautiful surroundings.
As the market lost its charm, the families living there for generations lost their livelihoods due to decreased footfall, and price hikes of nearby markets. Not realizing that the dismal was actually caused by the government, they silently withdrew and sold out or abandoned the spaces. No one knows where the centuries-old craft of Hauz Khas village went. No one knows if it survives today still or not.
The empty spaces were taken up by new ventures that could afford the rates put up by DDA. These ventures, mostly food joints, soon became the faces of Hauz Khas Village.
Ugly cement road has now replaced cobblestone. Most of the carvings have been stripped off, wooden partitions replaced by mere brick and mortar, and red sandstone or rugged cement flooring replaced by Italian marble. Still, some smithereens remain to show the atrocities faced by these buildings and the life that once thrived here.
People identify themselves with not the market anymore but the last costly restaurant they dined in. How sad that the furnaces that once produced the precious ceramics of a potter now produce the costly wood-fired pizzas of Amici. How sad that a market whose streets adorned the skilled work of Delhi now behold the counters and closed glass doors of Kaffeine, Imperfeccto, and Asia Kitchen. Axis Bank ATM at the entrance of the village mocks its forgotten principles; the haphazard parking and jams just outside disgrace the public realm in such a way that the monuments now seem hidden behind the markets, almost shy to reveal themselves.
The physical manifestation of the common good, along with the vocabulary, grammar, and syntax of architecture the village exhibited, are now just onerous homing thoughts. What’s worse is that more than three-quarters of ventures operating in the market are foreign-owned investments.
This hasn’t been just the ill fate of Hauz Khas village but every market in New Delhi. Rapid commercialization blinded the people of Delhi, replaced the market and street experience with the product experience of the vast variety of goods, forced the craftsmen to retreat silently with their treacherous plays, and consumed the economy by destroying the indigenous culture of the markets — all in just 13 years!
As for Ansal Plaza, it celebrated it’s 14 anniversary some months back in a sorry but well-deserved state — having lost to its competitors, the ever-rising mall population of the National Capital Region, and being reduced to an office complex. But why blame a beautiful piece of architecture that served the people well in its every way? It’s not the architecture itself but the sheer presence of the ideology behind it, not the physical manifestation but the soul of the body that is to be blamed (same as in the case of skyscrapers). Ansal Plaza brought in the parasite of commercialization that weakened the foundations of our democracies and blinded the common man. It has caused a generation to lose their livelihood, a city to lose its history, skill, and vision; and given an easy inlet to the skyscrapers that would destroy the sorry state of the capital of India furthermore.
Delhi the richest cosmopolitan of India, now lies stripped off of its belongings, tantalized by the mishaps. Losing the glory, all have been reduced to a state of a single culture — ‘materialism’ — all is left but our trodden path to blame.
It is often said that ‘the easiest thing to do in this world is to sell your soul.’ Ansal Plaza will remain the testament to how our government lost its vision, sold their souls and the rest of the city with it, and how the people of Delhi soon followed.